With age, a theater company can easily lose sight of its original mission. Not so the Women’s Project, which is observing its 30th anniversary with just the sort of play you want from the company Julia Miles established to produce and advocate theater created by women. Catherine Trieschmann’s “Crooked” fits the feminist bill right down the line, with its harrowing emotional conflict between a free-thinking mother and a teenage daughter so contrary that she adopts a classmate’s bizarre brand of fundamentalist Christianity.
No typical coming-of-age drama, “Crooked” did not even conform to the typical production pattern for a new play. First performed at the 2005 Summer Play Festival in New York, it was initially picked up by the Bush Theater in London before landing back in New York in a new production impeccably cast and stringently directed by Liz Diamond. And despite its prickly treatment of evangelical Christianity as freely practiced in the deep South, the intimately scaled play could make the full circuit of whatever stages still exist for smart and sensitive feminist fare.
Empty bleachers are not a good sign in a three-character play, and Jennifer Moeller’s visual statement of teenage alienation is initially overwhelming. But the tight lid imposed by S. Ryan Schmidt’s lighting design keeps the emotions from bubbling over in a family that lost its equilibrium when its violently psychotic father was institutionalized.
Bubble over they do, nonetheless, when 14-year-old Laney (the young, the awesome Cristin Milioti) stuns her progressive mother, Elise (Betsy Aidem, making it look like a breeze) by taking up with another outcast classmate, Bible-thumping Maribel (as scary as she is sugary, in Carmen M. Herlihy’s perf), and declaring herself a “Christian holiness lesbian.”
But before this mother-daughter relationship implodes, scribe Trieschmann makes it clear Laney is no juvie monster — despite the hump on her back from tensed-up muscles — and Elise is not a cruel mother. After getting an earful of her imaginative daughter’s macabre storytelling efforts, Elise does not clamp her under house arrest but gently advises her that “suffering is not good for writing. Suffering is good for depression. Reading is good for writing.”
A progressive sociologist who has moved them into her family’s old home in Mississippi to restore some sense of continuity and order to their chaotic life, Elise is such a caring mother that it takes something really big to rock her. Laney puts her finger on that something when she befriends creepy Maribel, a girl so lonely she has convinced herself she carries the stigmata of Christ. As a way of getting back at her liberal-minded and free-spirited mother, a smart teenager like Laney can do no better than embrace Maribel’s restrictive brand of Christianity.
For all the sensitivity of Trieschmann’s articulate exploration of the mother-daughter bond and its dissolution, the play has certain problems in logic.
Would a girl as intelligent, gifted and emotionally manipulative as Laney really find common ground with Maribel, who is indeed “poor and stupid and a little bit crazy,” as Elise so unkindly but accurately puts it? Would this odd friendship not alert Elise — a sociologist, remember — that Laney’s rebelliousness has taken a turn that cries out for emergency sessions at the shrink? Given the magnitude of their crushing family issues — dad institutionalized, mom a wreck, kid so troubled she’s developed a hump on her back — there needs to be a good reason why this family isn’t on 24/7 psychological life support to begin with.
Trieschmann counters such reservations with scenes so tautly written that they sweep away whatever questions they fail to resolve. And helmer Diamond runs such a tight ship that any gaps in logic are handily deflected by her nifty cast. In fact, the questions that keep battering the brain after the lights go down are the very ones that should keep mothers and daughters talking for hours.